Cayuga to Dunnville: A Walk Up River Road

For most of today’s 29 kilometres, I was on one road: River Road. It’s a quiet road on the south side of the Grand that winds along parallel to the river, through wood lots and beside fields of corn and winter wheat and strawberries. By quiet, I mean there’s little traffic, not that there’s nothing to listen to. I could hear innumerable birds twittering and chirping, the wind sighing through the trees, grasshoppers shirring in the wheat fields. And, of course, the steady tramp of my boots on the pavement.

I ran across my first rude driver this morning. He chided me for having the audacity to walk along the road. But this road, it’s part of the Grand Valley Trail. Look, you can see one of their waymarkers just over there! He wasn’t interested. In his mind, I was in the wrong for daring to walk along a country road on a beautiful summer morning.

Mostly, though, the motorists who share the roads with me have been pretty good during the past two weeks. They’ve gone out of their way to give me space. Almost everybody drives too quickly, but who’s not guilty of doing that? Nobody has thrown anything at me and nobody has deliberately passed too closely. Sometimes drivers even wave–especially farmers when they’re behind the wheel of their tractors. The same farmers are less likely to wave if they’re driving pickup trucks. I wonder why that is. 

And sometimes passing motorists go out of their way to be kind. Late this morning I came to an odd intersection. I was just getting out my map to see which way to go (turn left, carry on straight ahead) when a minivan pulled up. “Where’re you headed?” he asked. I told him. “You’re going the right way,” the driver said. “Just turn left and you’ll stay on River Road to Dunnville.” He was right, of course, and I didn’t end up taking a wrong turn that would’ve lead to a lot of backtracking.

Later I passed by a woman pruning a shrub in her garden. She had to be in her eighties. She was born on a farm just up the road, she told me. Her father owned three farms in a row. Now her daughter lives on one of them and her son on the other. She lives on the third. I told her what I was doing, about the Save the Evidence campaign and the plan to create a museum or interpretive centre in the former residential school in Brantford. “Oh, yes, those were terrible places,” she said. “You hear a lot about them nowadays. I wonder what the people who came up with those schools were thinking.” I told her about my blog and asked if she had a computer. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’m not very computer literate.” She didn’t want me to take her picture. “I’m in my gardening clothes,” she said. “I’m not very photogenic.” We wished each other well and I started off down the road. It was a very pleasant interlude. 

I greeted a few cyclists along the way as well (River Road is a marked cycling route), but aside from the occasional passing truck or motorcycle I was alone with my thoughts–and the birds. I saw a red-tailed hawk coursing above the lawn of a farmhouse. I saw the flash of an American goldfinch heading for cover in the trees. I disturbed a turkey vulture as it was eating a particularly ripe piece of roadkill. And I saw countless robins and sparrows and red-winged blackbirds. 

I thought my antagonist today would be the heat. The forecast high for Cayuga was 32 degrees. I don’t always do well in the heat, and I’ve learned from experience the signs of heat exhaustion: irritability, nausea, headache, muscle weakness. So I need to get where I’m going before I start cursing and belching. But the closer to Lake Erie I got, the stronger and cooler the breeze became. And, in fact, the high temperature in Dunnville was only 28 degrees. 

That’s not the only way Lake Erie makes its presence known. The sky here is very different from the sky further upstream.  All day there was a strange light in the distance, a kind of haze, as if I’d be able to see the lake just over the next hill. It didn’t, of course. I’m still a good 10 kilometres from the lake. But I can tell I’m getting closer.

As I walked along, I thought about the effect that the forced surrender of 1841 would’ve had on Haudenosaunee languages. You see, the different nations who make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy settled in different parts of the Grand River valley: the Mohawks in the north, for example, and the Cayugas in the south. Some of the names of villages along the river attest to this pattern of settlement: Onondaga would’ve been where the Onondagas had a village, Cayuga would’ve been one of the Cayuga villages. This pattern of settlement would’ve helped to maintain the six languages that are spoken by the Six Nations. Now, though, everybody is crammed together on one crowded reserve. English would function as a useful common language. Add to that the lasting effects of residential schools, and those languages are in trouble. There are efforts to save Mohawk and Cayuga: they’re taught in schools on the reserve, and the Six Nations Polytechnic offers degree programs in those languages. But what will happen to Oneida and Onondaga and Tuscarora? And those languages–all Indigenous languages–are important: they are tangible evidence of different ways of seeing and thinking about the world. The loss of even one of them diminishes all of us.

I also wondered what it would’ve been like had the settlement of the Haldimand Tract been on terms set by the Six Nations. I’m sure things here would’ve been different. We would’ve learned more from the Haudenosaunee. The society that resulted from that contact would’ve been, to paraphrase John Ralston Saul, more Indigenous. That’s not what happened, of course. The colonizer can never admit to learning from the colonized, even when borrowing their technologies and their languages: Canada is named after an Indigenous word, for instance, and the canoe one of our national symbols. At least it’s not too late for that learning to begin: despite our efforts to eradicate them, Indigenous cultures and languages still exist.

Eventually, River Road came to an end and I found myself on the shoulder of a busy highway, walking in to Dunnville. The Grand is very wide here. The bridge at Dunnville is the last crossing. My motel turned out to be on the western edge of town, a long walk on tired, hot feet. If I want to eat at the best restaurant in town, Debb’s Cuisine, I’ll have to walk back to the bridge. I’m not sure I’m up for it. 

Don’t forget about the Woodland Cultural Centre’s Save the Evidence campaign. They are raising money to create a museum or interpretive centre about residential schools in the former residential school in Brantford. It’s an important project: we cannot be allowed to forget the cultural genocide that was perpetrated in those institutions. You can donate online here or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre at P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6. My walk ends tomorrow, but the Save the Evidence campaign will continue. It deserves your support. 

If by some chance you’re in Dunnville and would like to join me on a short walk to Port Maitland, e-mail me through the link on the “About” page or leave a comment on this post and we’ll make plans to meet. 

2 thoughts on “Cayuga to Dunnville: A Walk Up River Road

  1. Hi Ken

    You are drawing close to the end. I’m intrigued about your sense of the lake, long before you get to it. Thanks for your reflections and the reminded of precious aspects of culture that are endangered, along of course with the heart and soul of all concerned – colonisers as well as the colonised. Thankfully there is also deep resilience too. Here’s to continuing reconciliation and the future flourishing of all these people and this tract. Neil

    Liked by 1 person

  2. HI Ken – Congratulations! You made it! Bravo and kudos to you… what an excellent project! I read all your blogs to Glenn on the way to and from S’toon this weekend – very impressed.


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